Texas prosecutors say one Houston neighborhood that's been ravaged by drug dealing and violence will be a bit safer after a judge's ruling barred 16 members of the Bloods, Crips and Most Wanted gangs from entering the area.
Prosecutors in Harris County, where Houston is located, decided to take a civil approach to the criminal problem under Texas's public nuisance laws. They had to prove to a judge that the individuals were in fact gang members who had criminal records showing that they were nuisances, according to the Harris County Attorney's office.
The judge ruled in their favor Tuesday, granting an injunction against the 16 gang members.
"This enables us to get injunctions against gang members who are causing nuisances,' said Laura Cahill, senior assistant county attorney who handled the case.
"This is a way to clean up certain areas where there has been a lot of gang activity, particularly drug activity. It has gotten so bad the area was called no-man's land because of the drug dealers out there dealing all the time," Cahill said.
The county attorney's office presented testimony and evidence in a civil trial Tuesday, including testimony from five Houston police officers.
None of the 16 defendants showed up to court or were represented by attorneys. They have not actively participated in the suit, and four are currently in jail, Cahill said.
Filing civil actions against gang members proved difficult because they are often transient, she said.
"We had an orginal list of 28 (gang members), and there are probably more than that, but we had hard a time tracking them down to serve them with a lawsuit," she said.
The judge's ruling today means that the 16 individuals are prohibited from entering the "Safety Zone," created in the Brays Oaks neighborhood of Houston, about a mile-square area in the southwest part of the city. The neighborhood, which has two daycare centers and an elementary school, is heavily populated and has been wracked by gang violence, Cahill said.
The county also used public nuisance laws in order to sue two Brays Oaks convenience stores where gang members were hanging out during the day, Cahill said. The county then worked with the landowners of the properties to put in place more stringent security measures.
Cahill said that a civil injunction banning gang members has happened only once before in Harris County.
Lead county attorney Vince Ryan told ABC station KTRK in Houston that the injunction would help the community become a safer place for residents.
"These gangs are committing numerous criminal offenses in this area, close to a school, in residential areas and close to residential areas," Ryan told KTRK. "This is to create a safety zone so that people in the neighborhood can feel more comfortable and also give officers probable cause for stopping these gang members."
Following the judge's ruling, any of the 16 gang members found in the Brays Oaks Safety Zone could face one year of jail time and a $4,000 fine, KTRK reported.